Brownback evading open government

Gov. Sam Brownback communicates by private e-mail with his staff.
Gov. Sam Brownback communicates by private e-mail with his staff.

No wonder Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration hasn’t had a policy on using private e-mail accounts to do state business. It turns out the boss communicates by private e-mail with his staff.

After The Eagle’s Bryan Lowry revealed the practice over the weekend, Brownback defended it Monday, saying he’s been using a private cellphone and private e-mail since he was a U.S. senator.

“That’s just a simple way to do it. There’s multiple e-mail addresses, ways to contact me. I’ve got state e-mail addresses, too,” he said, according to Associated Press.

But the ability to contact him is beside the point. Brownback, who once said while in the U.S. Senate, “I believe in the old Reagan philosophy of trust but verify,” now asks Kansans to trust him and forgo the verification that open records laws are supposed to make possible.

So much for a Brownback spokeswoman’s assurance in January, when Lowry reported that the state budget director had privately e-mailed the governor’s budget draft to staffers and two lobbyists, that “there’s one e-mail that was sent over a holiday to personal e-mail accounts” and it wasn’t “indicative of any trend.”

By using a private e-mail account to conduct public business, the governor and his staffers may think they put the administration’s e-mails out of the reach of the Kansas Open Records Act – and Kansans.

But judging from Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s recent opinion concluding that state employees’ e-mails on private accounts don’t fall under KORA, the governor is a public “officer” whose own e-mails on a private account may well be public records.

If that’s arguable, one thing isn’t: KORA requires agencies to promptly turn over records or explain why they’re exempt. The Eagle first requested e-mails between the Governor’s Office and a lobbyist last October. It wasn’t until last week that the administration released some of the governor’s e-mails, 13 weeks after the request was revised. At one point the administration wanted more than $1,000 to fulfill the request.

Brownback’s practice of using private e-mail puts him in the bipartisan company of Hillary Clinton, who is rightly under fire for maintaining her own private e-mail server while secretary of state. Many other politicians use the private e-mail gambit to keep their work communications from being subject to court subpoenas or public document requests.

No matter who does it, though, it’s a thumb in the eye of transparent, open government.

And whether a state official’s communication about the public’s business is a public record shouldn’t depend only on who owns the cellphone, computer or e-mail account, which is why legislators need to fix the law right away. Waiting to study the issue and then act next legislative session, as advocated by Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, will only enable more secrecy.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman